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Safe Computing 101 – Basic Computer Safety and Maintenance

The enemies of disk drives are dust, heat, impacts, liquid, voltage spikes, and Windows (I might be kidding about Windows). Let’s address them one at a time and what to do about them.

Liquid.

Don’t use your computer in the bathtub. Don’t use your computer around happy hour. Don’t spill your double mocha soy latte on your keyboard. I have dealt with recovering data resulting from spills around the latter two conditions. Yes, all the data came off, but martinis, coffee, and most other liquids simply don’t mix with electronic components. It’s useful to get a keyboard protector “skin” if you must imbibe and compute simultaneously.

Should you spill onto your keyboard or laptop without such a covering in the way, immediately flip over the keyboard (or laptop) onto a towel, unplug it, and let it dry out overnight or for a day or two. This works enough of the time that it’s worth the wait. I have not personally had much luck with taking them apart and cleaning them out if this doesn’t work.

Impacts.

Don’t drop your computer! Don’t drop your disk drive. Have a padded bag for your laptop, but still treat it with care. Tossing and dropping a laptop, even in a padded bag, is bad for its health. Think how you would feel, tossed around in a bag! Many bags do not have enough padding on the bottom, so I have a hand towel in the bottom my laptop bag for extra padding. It’s a good idea to position a desktop computer away from doors, away from inkjet printers, away from feet and pets, and away from drawers that might bang into the computer.

Voltage spikes.

There are power fluctuations all day long in almost everybody’s wiring. A surge protector power strip will help, but for full protection, one should really use an uninterruptible power supply (UPS). They’re currently available for less than $50. There are models that will actually shut down your system “gracefully” – shut it down as if you were doing it, rather than just cutting off the power – in the event of a total power outage. Your data is worth the cost.

Another kind of voltage spike is a static discharge. This is what you get when you shuffle around on the carpet, then kiss your significant other, or zap your little brother in the cheek with your finger. It’s actually high voltage and can damage your computer, especially if you have opened up the box & touched something inside. You can discharge yourself (after you have stopped shuffling on the carpet!) by touching grounded metal before touching your computer.

Heat

Heat is public enemy number one for computers. Heat kills computers and disk drives. Disk drives generate heat and many people stack several disk drives together in their computer with no space between. Don’t do it! Or at least add a hard drive cooling fan, which can be had for less than $5 at places like geeks.com. If possible, keep your computer out of sunny windows, and in a room (or car) at a reasonable temperature. If it’s uncomfortably warm for you, it may also be so for your computer.

Dust

Heat and dust walk hand in hand to damage your computer. Dust makes a fine blanket that accumulates over time to heat up you disk drive, your processor, plug up your fan, and – as an added bonus – it’s conductive and can short out components in your computer.

What to do?

Change the computer’s location. A computer on the floor – especially on a rug under your desk – is a prime candidate for getting an internal blanket of dust. Place the computer off the floor – preferably a foot or more off the floor – and on a hard surface. Many of us have a desk that has a perfect little enclosed spot just made for a computer. It is also a perfect breeding ground for dust bunnies.

Dust out your computer every three months or so. If you’ve never done it, you will be shocked at how much dust comes out of it. You’ll want to use clean compressed air – canned air works great, but if using an air compressor, make sure the air coming out is clean and dry by blowing it at a piece of white notebook paper first. Dirty or wet – don’t use it. If using canned air, don’t shake the can while spraying, or you will spray out ice-cold propellant that give components a thermal shock and wastes your canned air as well.

You will want to have the computer unplugged. If possible, you’ll want to have the computer’s case open (unless it is a laptop). Blow out the system fan and any other fans that you see. Be careful not to dislodge the fan on the processor chip on the mother board.

Blow out the space between the hard drives. Blow from the back of CD or DVD drives, and from the front of any floppy drives. Blow out any ports like USB ports or memory card slots. Blow out any other vents or slots. Keep going until no more dust comes out.

So, to review: heat bad, dust bad, dropping bad, liquid bad, voltage spikes bad, Windows – it’s up to you.

To remedy: keep your computer comfortably cool; dust it out from time to time; locate it in an area free from bumping doors, feet, printers or pets; use a UPS; and for goodness sake, when you drink, practice safe…computing.

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